By Marcel Kunzmann and Stephen Wilkinson

Events in Cuba- What happened?

Events in Cuba- What happened?

By Marcel Kunzmann and Stephen Wilkinson

The events in Cuba on Sunday and Monday of July 11-12 have been widely reported in the media and have been the subject of intense activity on social media. This article has been compiled by a member of the IISC, Marcel Kunzmann and  Stephen Wilkinson. It is summary of the events as we understand them to be and is as fair and honest assessment of the situation that we can make at this time.

                                                          Assembly of government supporters in Camagüey (Source: Twitter )

The mood in Cuba has been tense for a some timeOn Sunday 11 July, pent-up anger on the island was suddenly expressed in the first anti-government protests since 1994. The wave of demonstrations began in San Antonio de los Baños in the western province of Artemisa close to Havana but then spread across the island with small demonstrations happening in many cities and towns. The President, Miguel Díaz-Canel, later showed his presence there on the streets with representatives of his government. In the afternoon, Díaz-Canel spoke to the population in a televised address in which he called on “all revolutionaries and communists” to oppose looting and protests. In response, very large numbers of people loyal to the system counter demonstrated. In most cases this citizen action quelled the protests without the need for security forces to be deployed. In Havana, some disturbances did require police action but these were sporadic and not widespread actions.

At the time of posting this (Tuesday 13 July) the streets of Cuba are reported to be calm. Order has been restored and the government has made clear the position of the country with regards to the economic and health crisis that lies behind protests. Here is our assessment of the events that have occurred and the causes of the protests.

Most serious crisis since the 1990s

Since the last wave of sanctions under former US President Donald Trump in 2019, Cuba’s economy has been under intense pressure. At that time, the targeted tracking of Venezuelan oil deliveries and new financial sanctions triggered the first dip in the economy. A year and a half of the pandemic with several lockdowns (including a nightly curfew) as well as the increasingly precarious situation of many Cubans as a result of the collapse in tourism have further increased public anxiety. Many of those who have made their living in forms of self employment and small businesses are reliant on tourism for their livelihoods. These have been particularly hard hit and have now started to run out of savings. The return of hard currency transactions in retail stores and rising inflation with the beginning of the currency reform on January 1st are expressions of the economic crisis in which Cuba finds itself. In 2020, the gross domestic product collapsed by 10.9 percent. In the first half of 2021 there was a further decline of two percent. The island’s economy is thus now in the midst of the worst recession since the 1990s.

In addition, in the past few weeks the Delta variant of Covid got out of control in some provinces. While the disease has been well handled in Cuba and mortality from the disease is very low in comparison to other countries, the spike in cases and hospitalisations in some places such as Matanzas for example, caused widespread anxiety in the population that is still waiting for the vaccine programme to reach them. The vaccination drive has reached about 27 per cent of the people and is not expected to completely cover the whole population until the end of the year.

However, the proximate cause of the protests appears to have been power outages that recently occurred as a result of a power plant accident. The repair to the plant took longer than it would have normally because the government has had difficulty sourcing spare parts – again as a consequence of the hardened US sanctions. This brought back traumatic memories of the “special period ” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, which were characterized by daily power cuts that sometimes lasted several hours. This created a sensibility about the stability of the power supply in Cuba that plays heavily on people’s minds, especially in times of crisis, and could have been the drop that overflowed the barrel.

The protests also followed a social media campaign a  few days earlier in which the Cuban opposition outside and inside the island made a coordinated effort calling for a “humanitarian intervention” under the hashtags “SOSCuba” and “SOSMatanzas”  due to the rising Covid numbers in the province. This was accompanied by a lot of disinformation that purported that Cuba was not accepting help from other countries. This is in fact not true and the Cuban government was forced last week to clarify its position in that regard. But given that some of the protestors were voicing demands for vaccines, it is a fair assumption that this campaign had an effect in encouraging people to protest.

Another underlying factor is the activity of the Biden Administration. Having promised that he would return to the Obama era policies of ‘normalising’ the relationship between the US and Cuba, the Biden administration has done nothing to change the Trump sanctions that have made the US embargo of the island tougher than it has ever been. Despite intense lobbying from civil society organisations and US businesses, Biden has been tin-eared and has kept up the pressure on Cuba and other countries that continue to trade and invest in Cuba.

The inclusion of Cuba on the list of terrorist states has affected Cuba’s ability to use US currency in its financial transactions and for Cuban Americans to send money to their family in the island. This recently meant that the government had to outlaw the use of the dollar in the island so that remittances would be sent in other currencies. There is no doubt that the inaction of the Biden Administration to ease the pressure on Cuba contributed to the events that have occurred. With the defeat of Trump, the expectations of better times among many Cubans were raised and the Biden Administration has dashed their hopes.

Protests from Havana to Santiago

The first street protests began on Sunday 11 July, in San Antonio de los Baños, 36 kilometers southwest of Havana. Within a few hours, they spread to more than a dozen other cities and towns across the country, including the revolutionary stronghold of Santiago de Cuba. Among other things, slogans such as “Down with communism!”, “Freedom!” And “We want vaccine!” were chanted, US flags could be seen and calls to Díaz-Canel to resign. In Havana, several hundred protesters marched along the Malecón waterfront and gathered in front of the Capitolio building. The opposition news site “Cibercuba” broadcast a live stream. The security forces reacted largely by de-escalating the tension and let the crowd go. However, there were also some arrests and violent clashes between demonstrators and supporters of the government and the state authorities. Several police vehicles were overturned and stones pelted in some instances.

In the late afternoon, Díaz-Canel addressed the population. In the first part of the 20-minute televised address, the president recapitulated the current economic crisis and referred to the pandemic as well as the 243 US sanctions that were passed under Trump and not yet been changed by Biden.

“All of these restrictions resulted in the country being cut short of several foreign currency revenues, such as tourism, travel by Cubans and sending money from overseas families,” said Díaz-Canel. He also detailed the shortage of medicines, spare parts and fuel for the power supply. In the midst of this situation, he said that the call for a “humanitarian corridor” arose. “We all know where it comes from”, he said. “If you really want to stand up for the Cuban people, you should abolish the blockade – and then we’ll see how we do things ourselves,” said Díaz-Canel, referring to the United States. “We will march to prove that the street belongs to the revolutionaries,” he added, referring to a pronouncement by Raúl Castro. The state is willing to engage in dialogue, but also to participate in events. “We will not give up the sovereignty or independence of our nation. To do this, they will have to step over our corpses. ”

“The order to fight has been given, take to the streets with the revolutionaries!” Was the headline of the state news portal “ Cubadebate ” immediately afterwards. The call of the President was followed on Sunday, when large numbers of supporters of the government, gathered in the nation’s streets and squares. There were some violent clashes between the groups and the protestors. The Internet  was largely turned off and the social networks and messenger services were only accessible via detours.  In recent years, with the continuous expansion of the Internet, the sudden cut-off of access is likely to cause disillusion in the younger generation.

Reactions on Monday

Several contingents of special forces from the police and the Interior Ministry arrived in Havana and elsewhere on Sunday evening. On Monday, apart from a few protests and arrests, the situation had largely calmed down. Special forces were increasingly present in Havana , and the area around the Capitolio was cordoned off with locking tapes. Rallies in support of the revolution took place in numerous cities and towns across the island.

Together with the his cabinet ministers, Díaz-Canel addressed the nation in a five-hour broadcast on all channels. The ministers explained the causes and strategies for solving the problems – the condition of the power plants, Covid incidences, medication and food shortages. At the end, in a call for unity the President said: “It is clear to us that we can discuss every signal, every suggestion from the people,” emphasizing the government’s willingness to enter into dialogue.

In further statements the Cuban government accused the United States of being behind the disturbances, using tactics that have been used in the so-called ‘orange’ revolutions in Eastern Europe. It is clear that on Monday, an intense twitter storm was generated by bots that depicted massive protests against the government that were quickly exposed as fraudulent images of crowds from other places. There were even pro government demonstrations in Havana that were said to have been protests, an occurrence that led some media outlets such as The Guardian newspaper in the UK to publish them in error and then later to have to correct their mistake.

The first international reactions to the protests were indicative of the split in the international community over relations with Cuba. US President Joe Biden, reading from a script that had been prepared for him, welcomed the events saying: “We stand on the side of the Cuban people”. The US was ready to offer its support to both Cuba and Haiti, where the president was recently shot, he added. “I have more for you guys in the near future,” Biden told reporters.

Russia warned against foreign influence and “destructive actions that promote the political destabilization of the island.” A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said Russia would keep a close eye on the situation in Cuba. China said that the US should lift the sanctions on the island. The Chinese media reported widely Cuban accusations that the the protests were the work of the United States and a part of a long-standing plan of ‘regime change’ using social media as a means to promote protest and disturbances. Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, unsurprisingly, reaffirmed their full solidarity with the socialist brother country. “No country in the world should be fenced in,” said Mexico’s President Andres López Obrador. “If you want to help Cuba, the first thing you should do is end the blockade,” he added.

Anecdotal evidence

The reports that we have received at the IISC about the events from our contacts on the island point to the view that the majority of those participating in the protests were not motivated by political  demands but rather the economic problems. They were not calling for the overthrow of the government but calling for more action to help them cope with the conditions they are living in. Our sources have said that the protests were not to do with rejecting communism but about the current situation brought on by the pandemic and exacerbated by the on-going sanctions. Additionally, some of our contacts have said large numbers of the protestors were young people who are unemployed. With no possibility of work for so many, food shortages and then electricity and internet cuts, the protests were in this sense perhaps inevitable but they were only supported by a minority.

We conclude that most people in Cuba remain behind the system and most blame the current situation on the United States rather than their government. However, the situation for many in the island is very grave and will continue to worsen unless the economic pressure on  Cuba is eased. The question is: Will the Biden administration take action to do that?

US actions- what next?

CNN reported that the events “seemed to catch the Biden administration on the hop,” and blamed the preoccupation of the administration with other crises as the reason why it had not settled on a defined Cuba policy.

However, the crux of the problem is that Cuba has become heavily politicized in the US, especially in the key swing state of Florida, where many émigrés live, so that it is almost impossible to rationally debate what the US approach should be. Key players in the debate, who oppose another Obama style opening, such as Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez – a New Jersey Democrat – and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, have a deep hatred of the Cuban system. In the recent elections they labelled Democrats as “socialists” for supporting Obama’s rapprochement with the island.
These Republicans were quick on Sunday to chastise Biden for not speaking out in strong support of the protestors. The President was somewhat painted into a corner by his own rhetoric of putting support for global democracy at the centre of his administration’s foreign policy. So he was pushed into taking a hard line on Sunday evening. His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, warned authorities in Havana against a crackdown. Biden followed with a written statement, then said on camera that current protests were not like anything, “frankly,” seen before. Protesters are demanding their freedom from “an authoritarian regime” and asserting “their universal rights,” Biden said. He also warned the Cuban government against “attempts to silence the voice of the people.”
By Tuesday, after the protests were quelled, Republicans were saying that if the situation produces a rafters crisis such as the one that occurred in 1994, the US should intervene in the island. Such a course of action could have disastrous consequences.